A former employee of Panda Express has motioned to file a lawsuit against the fast food chain, claiming that the company encouraged her to strip down to her underwear in front of other attendees and hug a male who was also in his underwear.
The company has subsequently denied ownership of the material and control of the meeting and insisted that it did not install mandatory attendance.
The lawsuit notes that a number of Panda Express employees were under the impression that participating in the seminar would increase their chances of a promotion, according to the Pasadena Star-News. The outlet noted that the 23-year-old woman will not stop at suing the chain but will also sue Alive Seminars and Coaching Academy for sexual misconduct, a hostile work environment, and the deliberate deployment of emotional distress.
The plaintiff reportedly joined the Panda Express team in 2016 before a store manager told her in 2019 that she would have to join a self-improvement seminar hosted by Alive Seminars. The lawsuit states: “Eager to improve her skills and advance within the company, plaintiff signed up and paid out of pocket to attend a four-day program. Panda Express pushed its employees in the Los Angeles region to complete Alive Seminars training. In many cases, it was a prerequisite to promotion.”
The plaintiff’s attorney, Oscar Ramirez, stated that there were between 20 and 50 employees in attendance during the seminar, which took place in a warehouse. Ramirez noted that each employee was forced to offer their identification numbers, after which they received materials with the Panda logo on it. The lawsuit alleges: “Alive Seminars served — in essence — as an extension of Panda Express’ own Human Resources department.”
The lawsuit suggests that participants were told to remain seated and keep quiet while they were isolated for an hour—after which a man entered and yelled at them for not doing anything, calling them “nothing” and saying that they “don’t matter” while abusing each one. “Seminar participants were prohibited from using their cellphones, there was no clock in the room and the doors and windows were all covered with black cloth,” The Star-News reported.
The lawsuit continues: “The atmosphere resembled less a self-improvement seminar than a site for off the-books interrogation of terrorist suspects. The sensory isolation and intimidation was reinforced by constant yelling and verbal abuse by seminar staff, creating an atmosphere of fear in the room. Nevertheless, most attendees, including plaintiff, felt that they had no choice but to remain because they were sent to the seminar by Panda Express and told that their opportunity for promotion would depend on completion of the seminar.”
“When the seminar continued on July 13, 2019, the woman allegedly was forced to strip down to her underwear under the guise of trust building,” The Star News noted, going on to quote the lawsuit: “Plaintiff — stripped almost naked in front of strangers and co-workers — was extremely uncomfortable but pressed on because she knew it was her only chance at a promotion. Meanwhile, Alive Seminars staff were openly ogling the women in their state of undress, smiling, and laughing.”
This was apparently followed by demands for attendees to rise and yell about their personal problems until the other attendees believed them.
“The last male participant had some difficulty ‘convincing’ the others and, as a result, broke down in tears,” the lawsuit alleges. “Plaintiff was told to stand up and go to the middle of the room with the male participant, where they were forced to ‘hug it out,’ wearing nothing but their underwear. Plaintiff was humiliated but did as she was told.”
Later, the lawsuit claims: “Alive Seminars staff proceeded to dim the lights. Plaintiff and the other attendees were instructed to stand up and close their eyes, pretending that a light from above would come down and take all the ‘negative energy’ out of them, then pretend that a hole opened up in the ground and swallowed the ‘negative energy.’ While this was happening, one of the Alive Seminars staff had a cell phone with the light on, recording plaintiff in her state of undress.”
The plaintiff finally said she had a family emergency and departed the scene.
Ramirez stated: “We are looking forward to presenting this case to a jury so that a clear message can be sent to Panda Express — which owns and operates over 2,000 restaurants — that it must put to an end to its practice of requiring its employees to undergo horrific psychological abuse and harassment to be promoted.”
Panda Express, as a result of the lawsuit, issues a statement where they denied direct connection to the seminar program or mandating attendance:
In response to the lawsuit, Panda Express issued a statement denying direct connection to the seminar program or mandating attendance:
Alive Seminars and Coaching Academy is a third-party organization in which Panda has no ownership interest and over which it exercises no control. While we always encourage personal growth and development, Panda Restaurant Group has not and does not mandate that any associate participate in Alive Seminars and Coaching Academy nor is it a requirement to earn promotions.
We are committed to providing a safe environment for all associates and stand behind our core values to treat each person with respect. We do not condone the kind of behavior (the plaintiff) has alleged took place at Alive Seminars and Coaching Academy, and we would not intentionally allow it to occur within or on behalf of our organization.